Rickie Fowler: Not Just a Frontrunner

As I implied in yesterday’s post, I followed Rickie Fowler again today gavel-to-gavel in the third round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, Arizona.

His opponent was none other than Sergio Garcia the sometimes enigmatic, sometimes mecurial and of late, increasingly mature Spanish superstar. Nowhere was that more evident than on the 7th green where Fowler had about 16 feet for par and Garcia, 5 or 6. Without any warning, as Rickie was replacing his ball to putt, Sergio offered him a half, in other words, good, good.

Fowler was confused at first; it had never happened to him before. What was he saying? 

It’s a makeable putt, but he’s obviously in a better situation.  He had about 8 or 10 feet down the hill.  Half the length of the putt, percentages, obviously he’s going to make more than I am.

I was ready to go and make the putt and put the pressure on him, but as I’m lining up to putt he said, Do you want to half?  What?  What is he saying?  He goes, Do you want to half?  Excuse me?  Do you want to half the hole?

I was thinking — I’m thinking in my head I kind of just want to play it out, but I would be stupid not to take a half.  I’m twice the distance he is, and we’re both putting for par.  So I was like sure, why not.

I really didn’t feel like it changed the flow of the match because he goes and makes birdie on 8 and goes 3-Up.

But it wasn’t intended to change the flow of the match. It was meant to balance what Sergio considered an imbalance in the karma.

On the par-3 6th green, with Rickie 2-Down and 5 feet away from a birdie after a terrific tee shot, Sergio needed to take relief. From a distance as he conferred with the walking referee, it looked like he was getting a drop from a sprinkler head. That was sort of true; he was getting relief from about 50 bees clustered in the sprinkler head trying to drink any residual water.

I’ve never seen this anyplace before, but in the desert, water sources are few and far between. So the bees have figured out the timing on the sprinklers and when watering the course has been completed, they come in to sop up any last drops. They are so busy at this, we desert dwellers know them to be generally harmless and we all co-exist in peace.

But after Sergio received his drop, the bees started to take to the air, swarming, he felt, around him (they do this, almost always harmlessly if you remain calm and once they confirm you’re not a flower). Sergio, however, has had bad bee experiences (he didn’t say precisely what), so he called the referee back over and asked for further relief from this potentially “dangerous situation.” After some more deliberation, he was granted a couple more feet relief and he chipped up to gimme range. Fowler gave him the putt.

But this whole affair took some 5 to 7 minutes — when these things start, you never know that they’re going to take forever, so you never time them (with the exception of searching for a lost ball — it’s 5 minutes to find it, by rule, and so you must time it.) So finally it was Rickie’s turn to putt and he missed. Sergio said later that he felt guilty that his extended delay had contributed to Fowler’s miss:

I feel like unfortunately the game lately hasn’t been what it should be.  I think that we are gentlemen.  That’s the key thing in this game of golf.

I felt guilty.  I felt guilty that my drop on 6 took so long.  I felt like if I would have been in his position I would have been uncomfortable waiting so long to hit my birdie putt.  So I just thought I have to do something.  I have to do something to make sure that I feel good with myself.

And I had the opportunity on 7 to give a nice half.  It wasn’t like my putt was a foot and he had to make a 15 or 16 footer.  I still had a 4 or 5-footer.  At least I can leave here feeling good, even though that I lost.  And that’s all there is to it.

It’s so funny because none of us who were there knew that any of this was going on in the background. When Sergio blasted his tee shot on the par-5 8th over the desert hill and into the par-5 2nd fairway as a shortcut, I went, “Ah ha! This is just a big psych job! He jerks everything around on the 7th green with this seemingly non-nonsensical gesture only to try to jerk Fowler the other way with this bold stunt into the 2nd fairway.”

(Full disclosure: I had done just such a thing in my club championship all those many amateur years ago, by playing my opening tee shot down the contiguous 18th fairway for a simple 9-iron back over the tree line. My opponent already lying a long-iron to the green in the proper fairway, but still behind the dogleg, never recovered from the shock. I am not recommending this cheesy behavior, I’m merely saying that I did it, making my suspicions of Sergio’s motives plausible. Takes one to know one, as the kids say.)

I was also reminded of a similar stunt that Phil Mickelson pulled back in his amateur, match-play days. Paired with a notoriously methodical player (i.e., slow), when the guy began dawdling over his putt outside Phil’s on the 1st green, Phil suddenly gave it to him so that he could make his (I’ll say) 15-foot birdie putt and be on with it. Phil boldly makes and his opponent never recovered from his shock either.

So anyway, Sergio hits it just short of the 8th green and gets it up and down for birdie while Rickie makes par and goes 3-Down.

What ensued was a terrific comeback with birdies on 9 and 10 and a string of halves to the birdie on 16 to get back to all square. They both make good pars on 17 and Rickie wins the match with a birdie on 18 when Sergio drives it into the rough and can’t get his approach shot close.

The most significant feature of Rickie’s par run was his “punch-out” with a cactus on the drivable, par-4 15th. Perhaps compensating for his pull into the desert on Thursday, he pushed his drive behind a cactus. Although it looked impossible, he went on to make par to halve the hole after this incredible shot:

(How do I know all of this? Because after the shot, as the camera pulls back, you can see the TV sound guy with the fuzzy mic backing away from Rickie. I’m the guy in the yellow shorts right behind the sound guy. Don’t blink.)

These two guys are good friends, having been paired together a lot over the years and afterward, they did all manner of stand-up interviews side-by-side before they did their individual ones. It was heartening.

Rickie will be paired with Tucson’s own, Jim Furyk on Saturday. Here are all the pairings with the local, Mountain times:

10:05 – Louis Oosthhuizen vs. Jason Day

10:20 – Jim Furyk vs. Rickie Fowler

11:45 – Ernie Els vs. Jordan Spieth

12:00 – Graeme McDowell vs. Victor Dubuisson

The timing has something to do with television coverage, of course, but I don’t know what. The Golf Channel begins at 12:00 PM Eastern and CBS picks it up at 2:00 PM Eastern.

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